Calgary

Friends pitch in to help Alberta photographer living in his truck

Friends of Mitch Popilchak say he's special, always someone they could count on for help. Now they're pitching in to help him in his time of need.

Fundraiser to repair his vehicle grew into support from across Canada

Mitch Popilchak poses for a selfie with his friend Kayla Green. His friends are raising money for him as he faces homelessness. (Kayla Green)

Mitch Popilchak's friends are pitching in to help him get back on his feet.

Popilchak is a photographer based in Canmore, Alta. And he's having a hard time.

He's struggling to piece together work and is living in his truck. And now his truck needs a $2,900 repair or else he may have nowhere to sleep.

But Popilchak is special, his friends say. He's always been there for them, selflessly helping and asking nothing in return.

Now they're giving back and raising money in hopes of helping him get back on track.

'Always happy to help a friend'

Merry Kuchle, who has known Popilchak for 12 years, started a GoFundMe online campaign. In hours, it surpassed the repair bill. Now it's nearing $12,000 with donations from across Canada.

The page is filled with testimonies about his helpfulness, as well as offers of jobs, contracts and other kinds of support.

Many donors, Kuchle says, feel like they're paying him back. He's trained in marketing and website development, and became known for always lending his skills — for free — to Alberta's writing and creative community.

"He was always that guy that if your blog went down, you could call him and say, 'help.' And he would be the first to fix things," she said. "You would say, you know, what do I owe you? And he was like, 'Nothing, it was easy. I'm always happy to help a friend out.'"

Listen to Merry Kuchle explain how people are coming together for their friend:

Popilchak is facing poverty due to a series of life events and choices. His mother became quite ill, and he was her caregiver.

The emotional stress, he said, pushed him to flee Calgary, once the situation stabilized. He sold his house, bought a truck and set off across Canada for a solo photojournalism project.

Mitch Popilchak and his friend Mark Butler go for a hike. Popilchak's friends are coming together to help him in his time of need. (Mitch Popilchak)

He wanted to have a breather. And in doing so, he photographed people and places around this country.

"You know those places in Canada that nobody ever goes to?" he said. "I put in 110,000 kilometres in two years, crisscrossing roads in places none of us had ever heard of."

Popilchak has travelled across Canada, interviewing people and taking their photos. (Mitch Popilchak Photography/North 51 Degrees)

He returned to Alberta, settling in Canmore, where he could continue his photography and live out of his truck, as he no longer had a home. Unlike many municipalities, Canmore allows people to camp in their vehicles.

But then he found work was harder to pick up. The price of oil had dropped and companies were cutting their budgets.

"The economy changed and things dried up," he said. "And the first thing to go was some of the freelance work and the contract stuff."

Popilchak visited Waterton Park after the 2017 forest fire and took this picture of the Prince of Wales Hotel. He's since remained friends with people who live there. (Mitch Popilchak Photography/North 51 Degrees)

He's managed to scrape together a bit but it's been exhausting, and he's struggled, also while facing his own medical condition.

Now the margins have gotten so thin, a surprise truck repair could mean he would no longer have a place to camp.

"If you're not sleeping well, if you're not eating fruits and vegetables and that sort of stuff, and if you're struggling at all, it just starts to compound on itself," he said. "And over time, you lose confidence and it just snowballs and then you end up where you are today."

Popilchak hopes to put together a book with his photos and stories of the people he met. But he hasn't had the energy due to his financial instability. (Mitch Popilchak Photography/North 51 Degrees)

When his friend suggested a crowdfunding campaign, he balked at the idea. But then he asked his adult son, other loved ones and friends for advice.

"Every one of them said, 'Don't be ridiculous. You're loved by many. Just do it.'"

And the donations are coming in from across Canada. Popilchak says he's been lucky to make friends everywhere he goes. But he was shy, nonetheless, about discussing his situation.

"It's kind of humiliating to be in a position where you need to ask for this kind of help, to bare your soul to other people and say, 'I live in my vehicle and it's not as pretty as hashtag the Van Life would make you think,'" he said. "And so I had to think long and hard as to whether I was going to say yes to it."

Popilchak says if things sort out for him, he'd like to eventually put out a book with his cross-Canada photos and stories.

He's also managed to pick up a bit more contract work, thanks to offers from old friends and acquaintances who saw the crowdfunding page.

With files from Danielle Nerman and the Calgary Eyeopener

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